Efforts to raise the status of university teaching received a "serious setback" this week, with the announcement that pedagogical research would not be separately assessed in the next research assessment exercise in 2001.
A task group set up to advise the Higher Education Funding Council on handling educational research has concluded that there is no reason to create a specific sub-panel to assess pedagogic research. Instead it will be returned to a general education panel. The decision has dismayed academics working in the field, many of whom fear their research will now be scrapped.
"This is absurd,'' said Alan Jenkins, professor of geography at Oxford Brookes University. "On the one hand, the funding council says our research is important, and then it refuses to recognise it. This sends a dangerous message and I know for a fact that staff around the country are being told to drop their discipline-based pedagogic research. That is already happening because the research just doesn't count."
Liz Beatty, head of staff development at Coventry University, said that some researchers would be seriously disadvantaged by the decision, particularly if they did not belong to a large educational faculty.
"This does not follow the funding council's learning and teaching strategy, as the RAE was the original problem for pedagogical research. Not to fundamentally re-examine the problem this time round is a mistake,'' she said.
The report of the task group on education acknowledges concerns about the ability of the education panel to assess a wide range of discipline-based research. It considered the creation of a number of specific sub-panels, but concluded that a better solution would be to increase the size of the main panel, which in future would include a proportion of users of research. The only exception will be a sub-panel for continuing education research, as has existed previously.
The report says that the group had looked closely at the case for a separate sub-panel for higher education research into the teaching of disciplines.
"The group agrees that it is most important that the academic community should have confidence that such research would be properly assessed and recommends that it should be returned to the education panel,'' says the report.
"There does not seem to the group to be any more reason to create a specific sub-panel for the assessment of higher education pedagogic research than there is to create panels for the assessment of school-level research."
Mick Healey, professor of geography at Cheltenham and Gloucester College, said that most people interested in pedagogy were also mainstream researchers.
"These people are now likely to concentrate solely on subject research, as their departments have to make strategic decisions and may well decide not to submit pedagogic research for the RAE if it is not seen as having value.
"If there were a separate panel it would give higher status to research into learning and teaching. This is a missed opportunity," he said.